Australian Open Diary: The more things change
The more things change, the more they remain the same. If there is one thing that the 2015 Australian Open has provided us, it might well be a strong validation of this saying. On the surface, this tournament has offered quite a few moments of turbulence. Established champions have been vanquished early, bright young heroes have made their tentative forays into the spotlight, some titanic contests have been staged, especially in the early stages of the championship.
But now looking back at the end of the fortnight, there is a sense that all these turbulent ripples have settled themselves into familiar patterns. They have only contributed to reinforcing some tennis truths that we knew all along. There may have been a few shocks and surprises along the way, but in the end, none of them have drastically altered our perceptions of the men’s and women’s tennis tours.
Is the Big Four still relevant?
By far the biggest upset in the men’s tournament in the first week was the third round defeat of Roger Federer, when he lost to Andreas Seppi for the first time in his career. It also marked the earliest that Federer had made his exit from the Australian Open since 2001. Federer’s departure was soon followed by Rafael Nadal’s, when he lost to Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinals, a player whom he had owned till then. Add to these events, other insinuating factors like Nadal’s injury woes and Federer’s age, and it seemed a perfect occasion to announce the demise of the Big Four in men’s tennis.
On the other hand, Novak Djokovic played like a champion, without losing a set till the semi-finals. And Andy Murray, for the first time in close to two years, showed the kind of intent and form that has won him Grand Slams. Irrespective of the outcome of Sunday’s final, the two junior members of the Big Four have already ensured that 36 of the last 39 Majors have been won by a member of this elite club. Murray’s impressive tournament has also guaranteed that the Big Four will now return to the top four rankings on the ATP tour.
Whatever changes may happen to their internal dynamics, the Big Four remains the sport’s indestructible cartel.
How do you break a losing streak?
For a brief while, Tomas Berdych made us all believers. Even if not in his Grand Slam winning credentials, he convinced us that if you keep playing an overmatched opponent time and again, you will eventually manage to get the better of him. Berdych had lost to Nadal 17 consecutive times coming into their quarterfinals, in a streak that extended from 2006.
But this time, he had a new coach in his corner and a tougher mental mindset. The result was a straight set thumping handed out to Nadal by Berdych, the kind we were more used to seeing happen the other way around.
So this was the famed unpredictability of sport, after all. If you tried hard and long enough, you were bound to break through.
On the other hand though, Serena Williams won her 19th Grand Slam title today. And in the process, she dismantled Maria Sharapova for the 16th consecutive time, in a run which began way back at the 2005 Australian Open.
In today’s final, Serena was the overwhelming favourite as usual, but there was reason to be cautiously optimistic for Sharapova as well. Sharapova had been very impressive in her last few matches in the tournament, and Serena was a little under the weather coming into the match. And of course, there was the recent Berdych experience to fall back upon. All losing streaks have to come to an end sometime. Today might well be the day, right?
Wrong. Sure, it was one of the better efforts from Sharapova tonight. She huffed and puffed, fought till the end, and saved a couple of match points. But the end result was another straight sets defeat at the hands of Serena. It was what we knew would happen all along.
Can teenagers still make heads turn in tennis?
Madison Keys was the new face in the women’s draw who made an impact in this tournament. Just 19 years old and with a powerful game, she made it all the way to the semifinals, impressing everyone with her strong serve, booming groundstrokes, and Lindsey Davenport in her box.
In the men’s section, Nick Kyrgios made a similar impact. In his case, the hype was more exaggerated, Kyrgios being Australian and a home favourite. But these were teenagers with obvious talent. These were the next generation of tennis stars. We were seeing the first of many such Grand Slam performances from them.
On the other hand, youngsters from previous years who were in similar positions do not seem to be anywhere in the bigger scheme of things currently. Think Sloane Stephens, who lost in the first round this year, or Laura Robson, who is not even on the tour at the moment. On the men’s side, there is the case of Bernard Tomic, or even Pablo Carreno Busta. These are all players who threatened to break out on tour, but have not been able to sustain their performances, and are currently middling in their rankings.
Even the more successful of newcomers, like Eugenie Bouchard, suffered demoralizing defeats at this Australian Open, which raise more questions than provide answers on the state of their progress on tour. What are the chances that Keys or Kyrgios are able to make a more successful transition to the very top?
The fact remains that today, the progress of youngsters to the top of professional tennis happens at a very slow pace, with frequent setbacks offsetting their occasional triumphs. The days of a Martina Hingis or even a Maria Sharapova winning Grand Slams in their teens appear to be long gone. Today, the appearance of new faces on tour does indicate change, but not necessarily at the cost of upsetting the existing hierarchy.
In the end, the more things change, the more they remain the same.